The term flashbulb memory (FBM) refers to the memory of when a person learned of an event that was shocking and of significant personal relevance.
A flashbulb memory is extremely vivid and detailed, seemingly stored in long-term memory like a photograph, hence the term “flashbulb.”
Flashbulb Memory Definition
Although Colegrove (1899) described a type of memory that is very similar to today’s definition of FBM, Brown and Kulik (1977) are given credit for coining the term flashbulb memory and providing an initial framework identifying its main characteristics.
In that seminal paper, Brown and Kulik (1977) define FBMs as:
“memories for the circumstances in which one first learned of a very surprising and consequential (or emotionally arousing) event” (p. 73).
One main difference between an FBM and a typical memory is that the FBM centers on the circumstances of the event being committed to memory. The memory includes information about when and where the event occurred.
Flashbulb memories are a type of autobiographical memory. Because they are so distinctive, Brown and Kulik originally proposed that FBMs are processed and stored in a separate memory mechanism from other types of autobiographical memories.
However, research has demonstrated that FBMs are processed in ways that are best explained by the same mechanisms as “ordinary” autobiographical memories (McCloskey, Wible, & Cohen, 1988; Talarico & Rubin, 2009).
People are usually very confident in the accuracy of their flashbulb memories and can recall the circumstances in which they learned of the event with great detail.
However, research has found that confidence does not necessarily equal accuracy (Talarico & Rubin, 2008; Day & Ross, 2014).
Flashbulb Memory vs First-Hand Memory
Hirst and Phelps (2016) describe several characteristics of flashbulb memories that make them distinct from other forms of autobiographical memories.
As stated above, a flashbulb memory refers only to the vivid memory of the circumstances in which one learned of a public event, such as the assassination attempt of a president or major catastrophe. In contrast, the memory of an event a person experiences directly is referred to as a first-hand memory (Pillemer, 2009).
Another distinction involves the memory of facts associated with the event. As Hirst and Phelps (2016) explain, although several “types of memories involve events, memories for the relevant facts are often referred to as event memories” (p. 2).
Here there is significant overlap in the two types of memories. They both involve facts associated with an event.
However, when those facts are in the context of a traumatic event and include the circumstances of first learning about the event, it will be categorized as an FBM.
Rubin and Kozin (1984) point out that FBMs are not limited to large-scale public events. It is possible that traumatic events that occurred in a family setting can also produce FBMs, such as when learning about the passing of a close relative (Mackay & Bluck, 2010).
A final point to be made involves the positive or negative nature of the event. While most research has investigated FBMs in the context of negative events, positive events can also produce FBMs.
For example, the fall of the Berlin Wall (Bohn & Bernstein, 2007) can be considered a traumatic event, but it was a very positive event from the perspective of most in the Western world.
Similar but Different: Collective Memory
Characteristics of Flashbulb Memories
Over the years, research has identified the characteristics of FBMs and found varying degrees of support for each.
Because of their vivid nature, FBMs are assumed to be highly accurate. However, the research does not support this assumption (Talarico & Rubin, 2008).
Although there is evidence for general accuracy, memory for specific details can be skewed to match other features of the narrative (Berntsen & Thomsen, 2005).
See More: Accuracy Examples
Research examining the consistency of FBMs involves comparing the recollection of the event across time.
To the extent that information at time 1 is different with information collected at time 2, then inconsistency can be viewed as an alternative measure of accuracy.
Research has demonstrated that information retained in FBMs is not more consistent than that found in everyday memories (Talarico & Rubin, 2003, 2007).
Theoretically, FBMs are extremely enduring. Empirically, there is some support that some individuals can remember FBMs over several decades.
For example, Brown and Kulik (1977) found that 54% of Americans had an FBM for the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. after 10 years.
Colgrove (1899) found that 71% of Americans had an FBM for the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln after 30 years.
Berntsen and Thomsen (2005) found that 95% of Danes had an FBM for the invasion and liberation of Denmark during WWII after 60 and 55 years, respectively.
Despite these figures, Talarico and Rubin (2008) conclude that the data supports the claim that “FBMs are long lasting, but they do not support the claim FBMs are indelible nor that they are more permanent than noteworthy everyday memories” (p. 83).
Brown and Kulik (1977) describe the vividness of FBMs as extremely pronounced, having a “live quality that is almost perceptual” (p. 74).
Although the research has demonstrated that FBMs are in fact quite vivid, ordinary autobiographical memories can also be vivid (Talarico et al., 2004).
Therefore, there is so far no reason to say that vividness is an undeniably distinct feature of FBMs that suggest a special mechanism in memory.
Participants in FBM research consistently report having great confidence in the accuracy of their FBMs, and when compared to other memories of equal age (Brown & Kulik, 1977; Talarico & Rubin, 2003, 2007).
The increased confidence may be due in part to the vividness of FBMs. Research by Neisser and Harsch (1992) found a strong correlation between ratings of confidence and vividness.
Moreover, confidence is unshaken even if researchers point out that the event could not have transpired as recalled.
Necessary Conditions to Produce a Flashbulb Memory
Talarico and Rubin (2008) elaborate on the necessary conditions for an FBM to occur.
Research examining FBMs are typically events that involve the loss of life (e.g., earthquakes) or events that contain strong political implications (e.g., assassinations).
Even though these events may not affect the individual directly, they may feel consequential to the individual nonetheless.
The event may also lead to circumstances which affect the individual directly, such as the increased security precautions implemented at airports after the September 11th terrorist attacks in NY.
Although consequentiality was initially identified as a necessary condition for the formation of an FBM, according to Talarico and Rubin (2008) “The empirical evidence fails to support the claim that objective consequentiality is relevant” (p. 85).
One reason FBMs are formed is due to the unusualness of the event. Examining the research on FBMs, researchers utilize recent tragedies such as natural disasters or terrorist attacks in their studies.
Research generally finds that the more distinctive the event, the more likely it is to be remembered. This is consistent with Hunt and Worthen (2006) and their historical overview of the research on distinctiveness and memory which spans over 2,000 published studies and dates back more than 100 years.
4. Emotional Affect
Although most studies utilize events that are negative in nature, this is not a necessary condition. Research has shown that events that produce negative or positive affect can result in an FBM (Bernsten & Thomsen, 2005).
In fact, Bohn and Bernsten (2007) found that the fall of the Berlin Wall, when comparing East and West German’s recall, was more likely to be remembered if interpreted as a positive event.
Hirst and Meksin (2008) provide the example of how the assassination of Lincoln and Kennedy endure because they were deified by popular culture. The events produced intense negative emotions in and of themselves, but they have since been framed in a positive emotional context.
Although FBMS are usually formed as a result of encountering an unexpected event, this is not a necessary condition. Individuals report having FBMs for events that they knew were forthcoming (Winograd & Killinger, 1983).
For example, Nixon’s resignation from the presidency and the first landing on the moon were widely anticipated, but still possess the phenomenological characteristics of FBMs.
This led Winograd and Killinger (1983) to conclude that “apparently events do not have to be unexpected to be memorable” (p. 42).
In summary, it appears that although the conditions identified above can be involved, they are not necessary or sufficient to produce an FBM.
Flashbulb Memory Examples
Although research has found support for and against many of the initial conditions postulated as necessary by Brown and Kulik (1977), the examples below will surely result in an FBM.
- September 11th 2001: The terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon are among the most often cited examples of FBMs in the United States. It was a shocking event that received a tremendous amount of news coverage in every country around the globe.
- Death of Princess Diana: In the early morning hours of August 31, 1997, Princess Diana died of injuries sustained in a car crash in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel in Paris, France. News coverage around the world was extensive and lasted for weeks, undoubtedly creating an enduring FBM in the minds of billions of people.
- Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.: April 4th, 1968 has gone down in U. S. history as one of the most shocking events in the country’s existence. When he was shot on that day in Memphis, Tennessee, it seemed as though the Civil Rights Movement might also pass. Most Americans that were alive on that day can tell you exactly when and where they heard the tragic news.
For a full list of examples, see my article: 25 Best Flashbulb Memory Examples
Flashbulb memories are memories for the circumstances of an event in which a person encounters shocking news. The individual can often report where they were at the time of receiving the news, what they were doing, and what time of day it was.
Historical events are considered prime examples of FBMs, including the assassination of presidents or famous figures and leaders in society.
Although early conceptualizations of FBMs identified several necessary conditions for an FBM to be produced, research has not always found support for those conditions.
For example, events do not have to be unanticipated or have strong personal consequences.
Research has also revealed that FBMs are not uniquely accurate, more consistent, longer lasting, or vivid than other noteworthy events in an individual’s life.
For these reasons, some researchers suggest that FBMs are so similar to other vivid autobiographical memories that there is no need to explain them as existing through a separate memory mechanism.
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Mackay, M. M., & Bluck, S. (2010). Meaning-making in memories: A comparison of memories of death-related and low point life experiences. Death studies, 34(8), 715-737.
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Neisser, U., & Harsch, N. (1992). Phantom flashbulbs: False recollections of hearing the news about Challenger. Affect and accuracy in recall: Studies of “flashbulb” memories, 4, 9-31.
Pillemer, D. B. (1984). Flashbulb memories of the assassination attempt on President Reagan. Cognition, 16(1), 63-80.
Pillemer, D. B. (2009). ” Hearing the news” versus” being there”: Comparing flashbulb memories and recall of first-hand experiences.
Rubin, D. C., & Kozin, M. (1984). Vivid memories. Cognition, 16(1), 81-95.
Talarico, J. M., & Rubin, D. C. (2003). Confidence, not consistency, characterizes flashbulb memories. Psychological science, 14(5), 455-461.
Talarico, J. M., LaBar, K. S., & Rubin, D. C. (2004). Emotional intensity predicts autobiographical memory experience. Memory & Cognition, 32, 1118-1132.
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